Every woman’s body is unique and by extension, their experiences surfing before, during and after pregnancy. As a capable waterwoman, Lauren L. Hill took for granted that she would surf through her pregnancy. She opens up about how her challenging pregnancy and hiatus from all the tools that give her joy provided the widest field for growth in new directions.
Words by Lauren L. Hill;
Photos courtesy of Lauren L. Hill
I just caught a wave for the first time in six months— probably the longest I’ve ever gone without seawater on my skin since I was an infant. It’s the day before my birthday (October 7th) and it’s been two months since giving birth. I was finally in the clear to exercise post emergency c-section. It was as good a time as any, I figured. Actually, that’s not true. I would have continued to procrastinate on my first surf back had my (amazing) partner not told me to stop being ridiculous, to stop making excuses and to go surfing NOW. He was right, so I did. The thing is, I thought the toughest part—not surfing for the last six months through my incredibly challenging pregnancy—was behind me.
The trouble began as I wiggled into my neoprene, now snugger than ever with the extra 8-10 pounds of baby weight. As I zip up, the rubber drags across my (already sore) nipple that’s been used more in the last eight weeks than in the last 30 years. I hoist my log atop my head, and I get a precursor for how weak I’ve actually become over the last months of not surfing. I try to jump off the sand to my knees to paddle, my groin feels unusually tight and sore, and I immediately kook it and end up balance checking with wobbles like five times before finally finding center and realizing that it’s not my balance that’s the problem—it’s my weight. I’m now sinking my favourite log in a way that makes it pretty difficult to gracefully knee paddle. So I switch to prone paddling and my swollen milk boobs are protesting immediately from too much pressure. The softness of my belly might be the saving grace of comfort here, were it not for my diastasis recti, the separation of my abdominal muscles that’s so common after pregnancy that can take months or years to rectify. A Facebook ad informed me that diastasis recti is the cause of so called ‘mummy tummy.’ So I guess that’s what’s happening in my midsection now, mum tum.
Now I know why so many women stop surfing after they have kids. It’d always flummoxed me – why we see so few elder women in the water. The tsunami of motherhood pulls many of us from our own passions. It challenges the sturdiness of your dedication to everything – not to mention your physical strength and (sometimes) your dignity. It washes away the superfluous, but also makes it easy to get caught up in the intensity of it and lose some of the things that bring us so much joy.
I guess I’d just assumed that I’d surf until I gave birth, like lots of women I know. If Serena Williams can win a grand slam in the first trimester, then surely catching a couple of little wavelets is doable. T’was not to be for me, however. Instead of the cruisey, yoga and wave rich, relaxing Earth momma pregnancy that I’d envisioned, I got to face each of my fears about the experience, from unexplained bleeding to an emergency c-section to a mandatory three weeks in a Special Care Nursery with my premature little guy under bright fluorescent lights and the metronomes of the handful of machines hooked up to little beings all around me.
I had lots of trepidation about pregnancy – and I felt so proud when I’d finally worked my way into feeling comfortable in my mind with the natural process that our bodies are so miraculously capable of. Well, most of our bodies. Mine had other plans.
I wasn’t always sure that I wanted children. Actually, throughout my 20s I was quite sure that I didn’t. I was too selfish, had too many hopes and dreams of my own to fulfill. Plus, the radical ecofeminist in me couldn’t justify the inequitable division of labor that came with childrearing or the environmental impact of reproducing. The planet is overpopulated already!
As I crossed the threshold into my 30s, I began to feel differently. Firstly, I was surprised at how I felt more sexual than ever before. I didn’t expect that. I’d made a life with the most amazing partner who desperately wanted children. I started to feel the depth of the biological urge to blend our genes and make a family together. That radical ecofeminist in me felt a little betrayed like I was copping out of the vision of standing strong against the gendered status quo that too often values women firstly as vessels for procuring children. The idea of being defined by motherhood made me uncomfortable. But one of the biggest risks in all the human experience, making babies and cleaving some of your own flesh and heart away and watching it grow into another being—that draw was too great not to experience first hand. I’d been traveling the world as a professional freesurfer for the last many years, had adventured and surfed in places more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. I was ready for a new kind of challenge. And so it was delivered.
I still had those deeply embedded fears to grapple with. So I set to changing my own mind about what it meant to be pregnant, to give birth, to be a mother, to raise a kind, compassionate person. I found excellent resources in Ina May Gaskin’s work, like Spiritual Midwifery, the film The Business of Being Born, and academic powerhouse Naomi Wolf’s Misconceptions. Slowly, I found myself more and more comfortable with the naturalness of the experience of pregnancy; able to slowly let go of the highly medicalized version we’re so often sold in the U.S. (a country which has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the Western world) about birth. I found myself dreaming up the perfectly curated home birth; creating a calm, gentle entry into the living world for our new being.
Just after I turned 31 it happened. I was pregnant. It was the hottest Australian summer in forever; I was queasy and sweaty, but excited. I’d had so many friends experience miscarriage in the first trimester that I decided not to share the news at all until we were in the “safety” of the second trimester. When week 14, then 15 came along, it felt like the time to finally share. Before I could piece the words together, I ended up in the emergency room bleeding profusely, admitted for threatened miscarriage. They had an ultrasound in the ER that is typically used on patients who’ve been in car accidents to scan for internal bleeding. After an hour or two, the technician, who admitted he didn’t have much experience with obstetrics, said nothing as he slid the scanner over my belly, looking for his heart beating. And we found it. Supreme relief.
I was sent home without any explanation about why I’d just passed so much blood. Unexplained bleeding in pregnancy is not normal, but it is very common. And it is uncommonly terrifying. I spent the next two weeks on self-imposed bed rest, lying as still as possible hoping I could make him stay. I felt almost nothing but fear and anxiety until I realized it again: I have no control in this situation. My feeble human mind has no role in the magic of cells dividing and subdividing.
I had about a month of calmer seas after that scare, but that would be the end of any semblance of normalcy in my pregnancy.
Diagnosis can be a mixed bag. In addition to the ballooning fibroid attached to the lower segment of my uterus (11cm at its largest), I was also diagnosed with placenta previa, which means that my placenta was blocking my cervix (the exit route), leaving no option but a c-section for delivery. The placenta is a miraculous organ that solely sustains the baby it’s made for. Our bodies make a whole new organ!
As the uterus grows rapidly in the third trimester, placenta previa means that the placenta gets abnormally stretched and can cause bleeding, or, worst case scenario, placental abruption, when the placenta begins to tear away from the uterine wall, a situation that can be life-threatening for both mother and baby.
The blood came gushing again at 23 weeks, then 26 weeks, then 29, 31, 32, and 33 until my doctor finally decided that it wasn’t safe for me to live at home anymore, that I needed to stay in hospital around the clock for observation because my condition was too threatening. Had the two of us been in this situation in most any other era we both likely would not have survived. Had I not been under the excellent and compassionate care of the Australian universal healthcare system, I would now probably be drowning not only in new motherhood, but also in unimaginable debt. I feel so grateful to live in a country where it is considered basic decency to communally support people in tangible ways—specifically with free healthcare—when they are at their most broken or vulnerable. No one should have the extra burden of finances to grapple with while going through the most intense time in their life. I will forever be humbled and in deep gratitude to the angelic nurses, midwives and doctors who give so much of themselves to support people and save lives.
Without my finely honed toolbox of coping mechanisms developed over a lifetime—surfing, swimming, yoga, or even walking further than the length of our house for that matter—I was stretched and stretched beyond where I thought I could go to find joy in the simplest things. The stress of living in a hospital for just a week sent my body over the edge though, and we had to deliver our sweet little Minoa 6 weeks early. He was tiny, but he was healthy.
Every being is made by another being ... every plant, every animal. It's a wonder that we ever feel alone, considering how deeply we are entwined in this web of life. Feeling so grateful to get to participate in this mysterious life cycle in new ways of late. Spring is going to be extra special for us this year.
It’s funny how the most challenging situations also provide the widest field for potential growth. I’m slowly easing back into the water now, slowly regaining my strength and balance and confidence in being safe in my body again, the place I’d always found refuge as an athlete. I have a long way to go, but the challenge feels surmountable considering what I’ve just been through. Popping up definitely isn’t as easy as it use to be, but I’ll get back there again.
For me, pregnancy was about stripping back almost everything I found comfort in, letting go of all of the familiar tools that made me feel calm or strong or safe, and then discovering what is left of me. Turns out, just enough. I’m learning how to be a mother now, just beginning to find my footing. And while I still have frustrations with the inequitable division of labor that comes with motherhood, my partner and I have set up very clear boundaries about contributing as equally as possible to this life that we created together. It’s an ongoing conversation.
In these early days of constant breastfeeding, the work is largely mine, but my preconceptions of motherhood didn’t prepare me for the actual momentous trade: perhaps I give more of myself, but I also get the opportunity to flesh out this relationship with my son in ways that only we can have together. It’s the opportunity to build a love that is uniquely ours. And that feels really beautiful, even if that fact is often buried in the tedium of repetition. I never fully understood the intimacy of having a baby; the beauty of feeling deeply together – getting to kiss another mouth that you love so much.
I walked out of the water feeling grateful to be allowed back in the ocean, but also saturated with the knowing that I could never be who I was before all of this. I’m so looking forward to rekindling my love with surfing and the ocean and seeing where our romance delivers us next.
I write all of this not to contribute another fear-inducing story into the world, but to share the knowing that almost everything you can imagine can go wrong, even way beyond what you can imagine, and still, things can turn out just fine. Wonderfully, in fact.
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